Album Review: Bad Religion - Age of Unreason
It would have been the very end of 1994, or at the beginning of 1995, that I bought a cassette copy of Bad Religion’s eighth full-length album (and first for a major label) Stranger Than Fiction. It remains, to this day, one of their most successful records in terms of both sales (only album by the band to be certified gold) as well remaining a touchstone with longtime fans. Released at a time when punk rock was becoming a commercial commodity, Stranger Than Fiction is a record that bridges the gaps between blistering angst and listener accessibility—and for something 25 years old, it has more or less aged surprisingly well.
I have owned Stranger Than Fiction three times in my life—the first, that cassette, purchased at the Wal-Mart in Freeport, Illinois, with my allowance. When I was all of 11 years old, I really have no idea how I discovered new music. This was long before the internet, long before iTunes, long before Pitchfork. I more than likely either saw the album advertised in, or read a blurb about it in the short lived, youth-oriented pop culture magazine Flux, and probably blind bought it based on knowing that Bad Religion were a punk band, and at that time, with my Rancid cassette and Green Day and Offspring CDs, was really into punk music.
The second time, I bought it on CD at a Record Town when I was in high school—I have no idea what happened to that disc, or how long I hung onto it for, or really, what even prompted me to buy another copy of it.
The most recent time was less than a year ago, when, on a whim spurred by a lot of free time and a crushing sense of grief, I began revisiting some of the old ‘punk’ albums I was so fond of when I was young—this being one of them. Nearly everything about it was still embedded deep within me, and as I streamed it from my wife’s Spotify account, I found myself still singing along to Greg Graffin’s raspy voice, or playing air guitar to Brett Guerwitz’s searing solos; I didn’t think twice about ordering the recent remastered and reissued vinyl edition of the album from the band’s webstore.
In the wake of the 2016 election there was talk about how a lot of ‘great art’ was going to come out of what transpired. Maybe I’m looking in all the wrong places, or maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but three years later, I haven’t really found any responses that I would consider to be ‘great.’
Bad Religion, as a band, has been around for longer than I’ve been alive. Volatile in their earliest days—breaking up only a few years after forming due to rising tensions and divergent lifestyles, they reunited in the mid-1980s, and even with a somewhat regular revolving door when it comes to line up changes, they’ve managed to retain three original members, have toured regularly throughout the last 20+ years, and have released 16 studio albums total.
With a name that is just begging to stir up controversy, while playing an aggressive style of music, it’s no surprise that Bad Religion have, throughout their carrier, become political—their 2004 effort, The Empire Strikes First was written in response to the first term of George W. Bush; and during the Gulf War, they released a 7” single that featured, of all people, Noam Chomsky on its b-side.
Returning with their first effort in six years, Age of Unreason finds the members of Bad Religion grappling with life in Trump’s America.
Age of Unreason is an album full of surprises—the first of which is just how great the band still sounds after 35 years. One of the trademarks that has followed Bad Religion throughout its career are the incredibly tight harmonies they inject into a bulk of their material—there are plenty of those throughout this record, and they are still just as melodic as they were the first time I heard them on Stranger Than Fiction.
Similarly, it’s also a surprise how kind time has been to Graffin’s voice—now in his mid-50s, it may not be as robustly youthful as it once was, but it shows little, if any, signs of the wear and tear the years fronting a band like this (plus a smattering of solo albums) has more than likely done to it. He may be more cautious in the way he sings—knowing where his limitations are—but he can still belt it out above the triple guitar attack and pummeling percussion behind him.
The most surprising thing of all about Age of Unreason is, perhaps, if you just look at it for what it is, how enjoyable of a record it is.
Maybe that shouldn’t be all that surprising—and that’s the thing that I grappled with as I pressed play on Age of Unreason during my first listen. There was a part of me—perhaps the part of me that believes at my age, I am ‘above music like this,’ that was taken aback by my in earnest attempt at listening to a new album from Bad Religion in the year 2019.
I didn’t think it would be unlistenable—but its accessibility, and ability to walk the line between the melodic and aggressive, all while remaining rather infectious at times, is very admirable, and worthy of at least one listen from even someone, like me, who had a passing interest in Bad Religion over 20 years ago.
Spread across 14 tracks, Age of Unreason is, as expected, a rather lean affair—Bad Religion, and pop-punk bands of this ilk aren’t known for sprawling, slow moving material; the shortest track is barely a minute in length—the absolutely breakneck “Faces of Grief,” and the longest is also the album’s closing track, “What Tomorrow Brings,” which arrives at slightly over three-minutes. Given the nature of ‘punk’ music, the band still, after all these years, plays with a palpable urgency, and even when the album switches between the very rapid, aggressive tracks, and the slightly less aggressive, more melodic songs, they keep that same energy going from beginning to end—it’s an unrelenting ride, and often exhausting.
Even though the band is able to maintain that same level of energy throughout, the album is structured so that its best material arrives within the first half, making the pacing in the second half a little uneven. It’s also within that first half that the slightly less aggressive, more melodic tracks arrive—and it’s those songs that are among the strongest and most memorable within the set.
In advance of Age of Reason, the band had been releasing one-off, politically themed singles, like “The Kids Are Alt-Right,” and “The Profane Rights of Man.” One of those made the cut for this record, “My Sanity,” released as a single in late 2018 did, and it finds Graffin at perhaps his most pensive throughout the album’s lyrical content—“Why do my favorite songs always make me cry?” he asks within the song’s first verse. The song’s second verse is much more political—the moment you hear the phrase ‘alternative facts’ uttered, you know where the song is headed; however, he returns to pensive ruminations in the chorus—“I’ve nothing to lose, so please let me be…I won’t let you go, what else can there be? You’re all I have—my sanity.”
The other less aggressive standout comes shortly after this—“Lose Your Head” finds the band in an even more melodic state musically, with drummer Jamie Miller slowing down his playing just enough so that you wouldn’t describe it as frenetic, keeping a steady, pounding rhythm for the band’s three guitarists to deliver crunchy riffs over the top of it, while Graffin and the other band members who contribute vocally hit stunning, tight, and soaring harmonies. Lyrically, it may be a little simple (the song’s refrain is ‘Don’t lose your head’ repeated a number of times) but it arrives as being one of most emotionally powerful moments on the record.
Bad Religion has always had a brand—and that brand has almost always been strong. You can almost always be certain of what a record by the group is going to sound like—this kind of predictability is both the band’s strength as well as a fatal flaw. A number of the song’s faster, angrier songs fall into a very specific formula—you can go so far as to predict when the short guitar solo will arrive (it’s almost always after the song’s second verse and chorus, but before a bridge and additional chorus.) And even with as energetic as Age of Unreason is, at a certain point, it does wind up starting to sound a little samey, and that is why, maybe, the album’s only, like, a half hour long—they know not to overstay their welcome.
Bad Religion, over 35 years since they formed, still play with a palpable urgency, yes, but the thing that I noticed about Age of Unreason, even though it is a very ‘of the times’ record, is that it lacks the immediacy that you can still hear in Stranger Than Fiction if you listen to it today. But maybe that’s just on me—maybe that’s because of my built in nostalgia for one specific record from this band; a record that I loved dearly when I was 11 and 12 years old, playing the cassette over and over again in my boombox.
‘Nostalgia is an excuse for stupidity,’ Graffin sneers, though, as a counterpoint, on the blistering “End of History,” following it up with one of the many lyrics that directly address this mess we, as a nation, are in with Donald Trump—‘I don’t believe in golden ages, or presidents that put kids in cages.’
Is nostalgia an excuse for stupidity? I suppose I shouldn’t expect to see Bad Religion touring Stranger Than Fiction from start to finish anytime soon if that is really how the band feels—and should I be so nostalgic for a facet of this band from a day so very long ago? Should I have continued to follow them throughout the rest of the 90s and into the 2000s, so that I could be listening to this with less of a critical ear?
Age of Unreason doesn’t provide us with any easy answers, but it is full of commentary on religion, philosophy, and politics, showing that even though they are playing an aggressive, ‘young person’s’ style of music, Bad Religion never really was able to age out of that, and the band’s lyrical content is still just as intelligent, if not more so, than it was in their earliest days. Songs with anti-Trump lyrics may have a shelf life that doesn’t extend beyond November 2020, but that’s okay with the band. 2019 is an age of unreason, and this album is an attempted reflection and rumination on the uncertain times that we find ourselves in.
The CD and digital editions of Age of Reason are available now via Epitaph Records; the vinyl editions are due out on June 14th.